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  • Writer's pictureLesley Gold

An App Ruined Iowa, But Could Save the 2024 Election

Like Florida’s “hanging chads,” Shadow Inc. could define the future of election tech

Do you know what they say about anger? It drives action, and that is the silver lining of this week’s primaries meltdown. We’re getting the last of official results and there is talk of a recanvass but we have had enough time to tally winners — Trump, Republicans, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Sanders. The Losers — The Democratic party, Biden, and most importantly Iowa. We need this hand wringing and hysteria to end on a positive note, which ideally would be an end to Iowa’s too-long reign as the presidential starting gate. I thought it might take an act of God to change the order of the primaries, but it turns out what we needed was a really bad app.

For years, campaign leaders, journalists, and private citizens have wanted to end Iowa’s place as the presidential campaign starting line. Why? Iowa looks like an increasingly small subset of the overall country. More importantly, those of us who pray at the temple of Van Jones, know that the voters most likely to determine the outcome of this Presidential race — black and Latino voters — are dangerously underrepresented in Iowa, which I lovingly refer to as the gateway to Nebraska.

So the time, energy, money, and messaging going to the Iowa voters does nothing to help Democrats win the presidency. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war. And as much as people, especially Silicon Valley people, love talking about bad tech, they love talking about winning more. Only billionaires who are self-funding their campaigns can afford to skip Iowa. As they say, only three tickets get punched out of Iowa so everyone has to compete in Iowa if they want to stay in the race.

Before this app failure, some viewed the pictures from the high school gymnasiums, filled with white people in plaid, as folksy. The coin tosses or a red-rover-type system to show candidate support seemed touchingly simple. But after the app disaster, those images from the gym remind us just how ridiculous it is that this is the way we start assigning delegates. Thank you, Shadow. Yes, it looks like an app with a little coding mistake will finally take down the whacky beginning to the most important political race in the world. Thank you, Shadow!

I love an innovator’s optimism. How can I not get excited when I hear entrepreneurs promise to democratize anything and everything: data, education, healthcare, financial services, food consumption… even politics. In the case of Shadow, which desperately needs a rebrand (even Cambridge Analytica has a better name), tech stifled democracy rather than doing any democratizing.

We’ve seen this movie before — an election turned into turmoil and chaos. Some of us still giggle when we hear the word Chad. A partially punched Chad, a hanging Chad, a fat Chad, a pregnant Chad. The year was 2000 and never had so many suits, ties, and briefcases descended on Dade County, Florida. But with all its cringe-inducing moments, that election did us some good. Two decades after the disastrous “hanging Chads” in Florida, we invested in technology like digital machines and iPads. Florida even inspired Obama’s campaign to revolutionize the use of campaign tech to reach voters.

We have to admit that tech has already democratized some parts of participation, maybe the most important part: political donations. Small donors now matter. They can bring a candidate beloved by the people a war chest. New donation tech has candidates challenging the status quo and raising millions of dollars from millions of individual people. It’s a new way of campaigning. Now, campaigns are financed in an extremely positive way. Funding a campaign is no longer exclusive to fat cats and corporate lobbyists. Only losing campaigns get funded that way anymore. And putting the power of the purse strings into the hands of the many rather than just the rich is going to drive a new kind of responsiveness in our political system.

The shouts that “there shouldn’t be an app for that,” on the heels of this disaster in Iowa sound out of touch in an increasingly digitized world. Let’s hope this Iowa caucus casts a long Shadow and encourages the Democrats to share some light and some energy on the constituencies that matter most in their election. Great entrepreneurs and great technology have always distinguished themselves by challenging the status quo. It looks like we did need an app for that.


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